Mongolian women now want smaller families
Mongolian women now want smaller families

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Mongolian women 'want status over big families'

A new study suggests the aspirations of women in Mongolia have rapidly shifted.  Before the rapid economic transition of the 1990s, the wealthiest women in the Communist-style era had big families. However, women today are less interested in babies and driven more by money and status. 

The research by Oxford University and Sheffield University was based on interviews with 9,000 women in Mongolia, a country that underwent a sudden transition from a Soviet-style state to mass privatisation. While the older cohort who lived under a Communist-style regime were likely to have bigger families if they were wealthier, younger women living in a more capitalist society want wealth and a partner with social standing before starting a family.

The research is published in the latest issue of the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The authors describe this as a 'demographic-economic paradox': the unequal and skills-based society of Mongolia today enables the educated women to rise up the social ladder and make money, but rather than this change being liberating, the paper suggests it seems to be at the expense of high fertility. As the free market takes hold, those women who have children later to pursue education become wealthier and this trend is particularly marked in the cities where most of the opportunities lie. 

The research investigated the link between women’s attitudes towards child-bearing and wealth, both between and within regions. The researchers analysed survey data on 9,000 women, aged from 15-49 years old, and over 4,000 husbands. They were asked about income, household amenities, educational level, the total number of children born, and how many children they already had when they first used contraceptive methods.

They found wealth becomes linked with small family sizes and women who live in the wealthiest households start using contraception before the birth of their first child or after one or two babies, while women who live in the poorest households start using contraception after three, four or five children

This effect was found to be three times stronger in urban as compared with remote, rural areas. The paper is one of the few empirical studies to look at how decision-making on reproductive behaviour is shaped by a woman’s access to resources and economic opportunity. 

Anthropologist Dr Alexandra Alvergne from Oxford University said: 'For a long time scholars have associated later child bearing with the length of time a mother has spent in education. However, we find that education on its own does not drive the decision on when to start a family. Rather, how much education translates into future wealth best explains fertility patterns across regions. This study suggests that many young women in Mongolia feel that in the market economy, they are having to choose between having babies and status in life and without supportive government policies, they can't have both.'

The paper says a woman's quest for status can depend on context: so whereas household wealth predicts a higher incentive to have children later in life in the urban areas of Mongolia, in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, fertility is highest among the wealthiest as big families carry status for women within that population.    

Dr Alvergne concluded: 'Most programmes in developing countries focus on getting girls to go to school in order to encourage smaller families and economic growth. This study shows that girls and women are very aware of the value education may have in helping them rise through society and become wealthier. However, education is not always a passport to wealth and status. The quality of education needs to be good too in order to open up economic opportunities, with supportive policies giving them the option to combine being a mother with a career.'

Further information

Full research paper
School of Anthropology
Alexandra Alvergne